DUBAI, UAE - Elena Rybakina may be a debutante at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, but the youngster continued to prove she's no fish out of water at this level by scoring her first Top 5 win over No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova 7-6(1), 6-3 to move into the semifinals in one hour and 41 minutes.
It is the Kazakh's fourth semifinal in five tournaments this year so far, and - just as in January, when she backed up a Shenzhen final run with a title in Hobart the following week - Rybakina has thus far been unbothered by her quick turnaround from reaching the St. Petersburg final indoors last week. But then, Rybakina has been unbothered by many things in Dubai, from her opponents' reputations to scoreboard pressure - and today the 20-year-old came from a break down in the first set to outhit and outserve the self-styled "Ace Queen" of the Tour.
Indeed, Rybakina said that Pliskova's ranking was not something that had crossed her mind.
"That's amazing," she said in response to being told of her latest milestone victory. "I didn't really think if she's No.2, 3. Doesn't really matter for me. I always try to do my best. Of course, I want to win every match."
Nor was her ice-cool demeanor, which rarely betrays any emotion - positive or negative, in triumph or defeat - a mask. "I'm always calm," Rybakina told reporters. Even she was surprised by how well she adapted to the conditions in Dubai, though. "I thought that I will have problems with the serve because indoors it's a different feeling," she said. "I'm surprised with my serve, that I'm really doing good."
In total, Rybakina would strike 33 winners (to 20 unforced errors) and 11 aces compared to Pliskova's respective tallies of 20 winners and three aces - but the lower-ranked player would also manage to find her best clutch tennis in the the tightest and most important moments throughout the match, saving 10 out of 11 break points.
Afterwards, an admiring Pliskova paid tribute to the former junior World No.3's talent. "I thought she played really well, especially on all of my chances," the 2016 US Open runner-up said. "I had a couple - actually, I had a lot. I thought I did an OK job just going into her second serve every time. I think she just came back with some good shots. Of course, she's young, so she went for it. She played well... It's tough. I think on days like this, really I didn't do that much wrong."
A flurry of backhand winners in the opening stages were a statement of intent from Rybakina, and Pliskova would not win a point off the ground until the third game. Nonetheless, the former World No.1's experience gained her the early upper hand as she saved a break point in the first game - and then took advantage of a pair of Rybakina double faults to capture the Bucharest and Hobart champion's serve for a 4-2 lead.
But Rybakina wasted no time to strike back with a formidable response. Treating Pliskova's renowned first serve with disdain, the unseeded player nailed a pair of breathtaking forehand return winners en route to an immediate break back - and then, despite missing a break point of her own at 4-4, held firm serving second, posting a pair of dominant holds and serving three consecutive aces to force the tiebreak.
There, Rybakina ran rampant, opening with a spectacular off backhand winner and dictating with her heavy forehand as she raced to a 6-0 lead, eventually conceding only one point as a deep return elicited a Pliskova error on her second set point.
Though the scoreboard would show Rybakina pressing home her advantage as she moved to a 4-1 lead in the second set, this passage of play was in many ways the tightest of the match. The Shenzhen and St. Petersburg finalist no longer had the luxury of quickfire holds; instead, she would have to battle through four deuces in her first service game, five in her second and two in her third. But despite an increase in unforced errors repeatedly proving an obstacle to the straightforward hold, Rybakina dragging herself into these tussles gave her the opportunity to show off some impressive clutch tennis.
Rybakina would fend off six break points across these three games, mostly coming up with unreturnable serves and bold winners to do so: she would hold for 1-0 with three service winners in a row, and found a backhand crosscourt winner down break point in the third game and a forehand down the line down break point in the fifth.
Pliskova, too, was struggling on serve under the relentless Rybakina pressure. Two scorching backhands put her in danger in her first service game of the set - and the Czech coughed up consecutive double faults, her first of the match, in response to fall behind 0-2.
That would prove to be the crucial break. Though 2015 runner-up Pliskova came up with some impressive serves and drive volleys in the sixth game to avoid falling behind the double break, Rybakina remained clutch on serve until the end, coming through another deuce hold to reach 5-2 and coming back from 0-30 to serve out a career-best win, finishing with yet another service winner down the tee.